The Nacunda Nighthawk (Podager nacunda) is one of the largest nightjars in the world and the largest one in South America, where it occurs naturally in central and eastern South America. In addition to its large size, its partially diurnal habits (active at daytime) set it apart from other nighthawks.
Its scientific name “Podager” means “a man suffering from gout” referencing this nightjar’s awkward walk; and “nacunda” is derived from the Guaraní Indian word for “big mouth.”
Thanks to their cryptic appearance, these nighthawks blend perfectly into their habitat and they are very difficult to spot during the daytime when they are usually hidden away sleeping. They are most easily detected at night when light from car headlights is reflected red from their eyes, as they are sitting on roads. However, their presence is most often made known by their loud calls given at dusk.
Alternate (Global) Names
Chinese: ????? … Czech: lelek skvrnok?ídlý … German: Weißbauch-Nachtschwalbe … Danish: Nacundanathøg … Finnish: valkovatsakehrääjä … French: Engoulevent nacunda … Italian: Caprimulgo-sparviero Nacunda … Japanese: shiroharaooyotaka … Dutch: Nacunda-nachtzwaluw … Norwegian: Nacundanatthauk … Polish: lelczyk duzy … Portuguese: Corucão … Spanish: Añapero Ñacundá … Swedish: Nacundanattskärra
Subspecies and Distribution
Nacunda Nighthawks are native to South America, where they occur east of the Andes mountain range with two separate populations.
- Podager nacunda nacunda (Vieillot, 1817) – Nominate Race
- Range: Eastern Peru east through Brazil (south of the Amazon Basin) south to Bolivia, Paraguay, Uruguay to central Argentina
- Podager nacunda minor (Cory, 1915)
- Range: Northern South America, in Ecuador, north and central Colombia, Venezuela, Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana, Suriname, French Guiana and extreme northern Brazil
They inhabit dry savanna, subtropical or tropical seasonally wet or flooded lowland grassland, forest and river edges, marshes, and degraded former forests.
The large Nacunda Nighthawk measures between 11 – 13 inches (~ 27 – 32 cm). It has a very large head, a black bill, and grey legs.
The upper plumage, including the entire head down to the upper chest, is a mottled black and brown, except for the highly contrasting white V-shaped band across the throat and the white wing bars followed by the blackish outer wing feathers (primaries). The underside is a faintly barred white.
Gender ID: The male can be identified by his white-tipped tail feathers.
Nacunda Nighthawks are mostly active during dawn and dusk (crepuscular). Unlike other nightjars, the Nacunda Nighthawk is more likely observed on the ground, rather than perching on a surface. They typically roost on the ground during the daytime in an area where they are fully exposed to the sun – either on open ground or on rocks in grassland.
They are usually found alone or in small groups – both when roosting or feeding. Occasionally, large flocks of 300-500 individuals have been sighted (Friedmann and Smith 1950, Hilty 2003).
Nesting / Breeding
The breeding season varies by region:
- In Colombia: they usually breed between January through June.
- On the Island of Trinidad: most breeding occurs in April.
- In Brazil, they breed from mid-September to November.
- In Uruguay and Bolivia, most nesting happens in November
- In Paraguay, they breed between October and November.
The male establishes his territory and sings at night to keep rivals away and at the same time to attract a female.
Nacunda Nighthawks don’t construct a nest, as most other bird species do. They simply place the eggs on the ground on open soil or rocky ground covered with dead leaves, often under bushes. Their nest site is typically situated near their feeding areas.
Nesting appears to be timed in such a way that the moon is more than half full at the time they are feeding their young – likely as the additional light during the night facilitates caring for the young and foraging for food.
The female may lay one to two eggs (mostly two) that are creamy or pinkish cream in color, with brown blotches, measuring 1.4 – 1.5 inches (35.2-37 mm) x 1 – 1.07 inches (25.4-27.2 mm) in diameter (Belcher and Smooker 1936).
During the day, the incubation of the eggs is undertaken by the female, while both parents share the incubation at night. The incubation period of nightjars in general is about 19 to 21 days.
The chicks are covered in down and are capable of short-distance movements within 24 hours of hatching. The male usually stands guard and defends the nest and the young. He will hover in place near the nest with his body in a nearly vertical position. The adults communicate with their young via soft clucking sounds to which the chicks respond.
Both parents feed the young regurgitated insects, and they continue to brood them until fledging. The young take their first flight when they are about 20 to 21 days old.
If conditions are favorable, the female may lay a second clutch close to the first and while she is incubating the new set of eggs, the male continues to care for the young from the first brood.
They have developed several behavioral adaptations to minimize predation:
- Their nocturnal (night) lifestyle reduces the likelihood of being detected by daytime predators. During the daytime, they typically sleep on the ground where they are perfectly camouflaged by their “earthy” colored plumage. They almost always change their roost sites daily.
- When nesting, they sit quietly on the eggs, minimizing any movements that could get them detected.
- If an intruder does get close to the nest, the parents may try to lead them away by first flushing off the nest and when landing feigning injury as they lead the potential thread away from the nest. While the parent performs this distraction display, the young may scatter and freeze.
- The parent who is not incubating the eggs or brooding the young will roost away from the nesting area.
- They may also move the eggs or young to prevent them from being preyed upon.
- Nightjars avoid voicing when they hear the calls made by predatory nocturnal animals, such as owls.